In this column, Weathering the Storm, I spotlight community-based solutions to climate change in Maine and the region — the territory of the Wabanaki People. The following is an interview with Sherri Mitchell, an author and indigenous rights attorney, born and raised on the Penobscot Indian Reservation in Maine.
Mitchell has been a leading voice advocating for the rights of the Penobscot people in the face of legal attacks on their sovereignty and sustenance fishing rights. (Mitchell notes that she is not an employee of the Penobscot Nation, and that her views do not represent those of the entire tribe.) In late October, Penobscot Nation tribal elder and former tribal representative to the state Legislature Donna Loring endorsed Janet Mills for governor. As Attorney General, Mills has helmed the legal cases in question.
The Phoenix: Can you tell me what the Penobscot river means to the Penobscot people? What is the relationship of your tribe to those waters?
SM: Well, I think it's in the name. We are Penobscot people, of the Penobscot Nation, who live in relationship with the land base on the Penobscot River. We see the river as our relative. It’s not something that we view as a resource, but rather as one of the sources of our survival as a riverine people, both in relation to sustenance and in relation to cultural continuity.
The Phoenix: The Penobscot River is contested territory. Maine is currently in a battle against Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Penobscot Nation over tribal sustenance fishing rights. There’s also a separate case, Penobscot v. Mills, regarding whether the Penobscot Nation’s territory includes the river. My understanding is that the legal ground of both these cases are rooted in the 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, a historic case where the Wabanaki Tribes sued the state of Maine for illegal sale and transfer of their land over centuries. Can you explain briefly how the act came into being, and how the Penobscot Nation interprets the sections of the act pertaining to the river?
SM: The best place to find information on the formation of the Land Claims Settlement Act is a thesis written by Penobscot historian Maria Girouard. But essentially, the tribe views the settlement act as a contested document in itself. There were changes made at the eleventh hour that the tribes did not get a chance to review. For example, a piece that eliminates tribes in the state of Maine from being a party to any federal legislation relating to tribes in the U.S. — that was not made clear to the tribes prior to signing. [There are] standing documents that have never been negotiated away, relating to the Penobscot River, [that] clearly show that the tribal people are viewed as the owners of the Penobscot territorial waterways.
The Phoenix: I saw you speak in September at the Maine Water Security Summit, a grassroots forum on water rights in Maine. You spoke about why non-native people should care about threats to indigenous sovereignty — not only as allies interested in justice for native people, but also because our future is tied up with yours. Can you speak more about that?
SM: It’s important for people who are looking to protect life on this planet to recognize that some of the last remaining protected places are occupied by indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples have specific rights that give them standing in these cases against industrial destruction of our ecosystems. The protection of these rights is not just an indigenous issue — or like you said, an ally issue. It’s also an issue for all those who seek to protect the last pristine places on the planet. Also, the way of life practiced by many tribal communities in relationship to the earth is a good model for addressing climate change.
I recently spoke at a conference with Paul Hawken, who just came out with a brilliant book [Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reduce Global Warming] outlining the most viable options for addressing climate change. Every one of those was aligned with some form of traditional tribal value.
The Phoenix: What role has Janet Mills played in these legal cases, and what power does she have to change course?
SM: As Attorney General, Mills has sued the EPA because of their findings that the state was not in compliance with the water quality standards necessary to maintain tribal sustenance fishing practices. She also signed on to a case in Washington State through an amicus brief, fighting against tribal sustenance fishing rights there. That was not a requirement of her position as Attorney General. She's never really taken responsibility for her venomous attacks on tribal people here, or her interference with the water rights of tribes in other states. She could withdraw that case that she filed with the EPA. She could make a public statement, promising to do the right thing and outlining what she will do for the tribes if she gets elected.